First of all, let me apologize for calling you all a niche market. When I wrote that, I knew all but a few of you in the abstract — many of you, as you said yourselves, had been squirreling yourselves away in Lurkland. Now that we’ve had this chance to meet properly, I’m blown away. For one thing, every one of you knows how to construct a paragraph. For another, you all seem like very nice and down-to-earth people. Not one of you is strangling on an idee fixe, or has an axe to grind. Some day, you’ll all have to tell me what in hell you’re doing on the Internet.
I was pleased to see a few priests out there in the audience. I may be off the reservation in many respects, but I’m thoroughly Catholic in my knee-jerk reverence for anyone in Holy Orders or religious life. In my mental universe, all of you are super-highbrows, used to bedding down for the night with Apologia pro Vita Sua. If you’re reading my crap, then, well, maybe it’s not all crap after all.
It was also nice to hear from some non-Catholics. In this, the age of the New Evangelism, there seems to be a backlash against “false ecumenism”; apparently, Catholics are letting down the side unless they’re kicking the other guys in the groin with all due charity. Well, setting good theological boundaries is fine, I guess, but so’s finding common ground. If that common ground can’t include the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist or the primacy of the pope, let it be something more humdrum, like the agony of doubt, or of an inflamed eye.
Thank you, everyone, for your spiritual direction. (Here I applaud the restraint of my Episcopalian reader, who did not promise to leave the light on for me.) Riding out my indigestion of the soul will take a while — maybe a long while — but I have no intention of throwing in the towel at any time in the near future. I entered the Church at what the Chinese would euphemistically call an interesting time. Convinced Catholics complain, reasonably enough, about aggressive New Atheists and sensationalistic press coverage of the clerical sex abuse scandals. But pity the poor seeker who enters the Church just as the call goes out to restore Catholic identity! Barely has he had the chance to wash the chrism from his hair before his new friends are screaming at him to quit being a relativist and man the barricades.
I’ve formed a love-hate relationship with that kind of militancy. One on hand, it’s a headache. Catholic anthropology aside, I like to think of myself simply as a human being who’s trying to build a pleasant life for himself. I don’t ask much — just a career, a family, some nice vacations, maybe some sane and reliable friends. Being morally and emotionally bludgeoned toward radical witness isn’t quite what I’d bargained for. Despite squeezing in — so to speak — a two-part philippic against anal intercourse, my RCIA instructors never covered cultural counter-revolution.
On the other hand, well, interesting times are interesting times, aren’t they?. Not long ago, Alice von Hildebrand critiqued Christopher West’s presentation of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. In a bid for the attention of a society starved for sensuality by its Puritan heritage, West praises Hugh Hefner as “tarnished gold.” With a straight face — one doubts she has any other — Hildebrand writes back that the very mention of pornography “triggered an expression of horror on [deceased husband Dietrich von Hildebrand's] noble face.” Intellectuals can debate the merits of these writers’ respective positions, but this man on the street sees slick marketing in a death match with old-fashioned frumpery– and can’t tear his eyes away.
But when I try to write about this stuff, I find I have to handle the material with tongs. Remember what Eleanor Roosevelt said about great minds discussing ideas, mediocre minds discussing events and small ones discussing people? I have a small mind, but a very active one. If minds were dogs, mine would be a Jack Russell terrier. Put it down to an underdevelopment of imaginative sympathy, but the person I find myself able to write about most confidently is…myself.
Believe me, I’m as sick as anyone of memoirs from undistinguished people. A few months ago, a young writer friended me on Facebook, asking my help in promoting her self-published memoir. Following a link to the book’s website, I was aghast. Judging by the promotional material, the book was exhibitionism, pure and simple. Anne Lamott remembers crumpling when an editor scolded her: “You think that everything that happens to you is interesting.” I got the sense that this author thought that events in her life weren’t merely interesting, but epochal. As I begged off the project, I hoped I’d never be too guilty of the same crime.
But for some reason, you, the good people who make up my readership, seem to like my personal reflections and anedcotes. (You were all too nice to say, “Meh” to my punditry, but I’ll say it for you.) Since I’m both a crowd-pleaser and a me-pleaser, I’ll happily keep it coming. Also to please us all, I’ll dedicate myself to quality control, keeping pieces short and sweet, easy on the angst, with a insight-to-confession ratio of .500 or higher. God willing, the finished product won’t read like Eat, Pray, Sneak a Smoke and Swear it’s the Last.